Two Sisters ★★★

Two Sisters, David Greig’s first full play in five years, examines the gap between who we were when we were 16 and who we become when we grow up

Two Sisters, David Greig’s bittersweet tale of shared memories and yearning for childhood, is his first original play to make it to the stage since 2013. (We can thank the Covid pandemic for the loss of another.) Seven years in the making, it receives its premiere at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre, in a co-production with Malmo Stadsteater in Sweden.

A circular neon sign shouting ‘Holiday Heaven’ welcomes the audience to a caravan park somewhere on the Fife coast. But even before the drapes are removed to reveal a faded caravan and rusting climbing frame, the backdrop of peeling postcards with their half-penny stamps says this is a holiday destination whose heyday was some years back – and with a future that looks bleak.

Images by Jess Shurte

So, thank goodness for the chorus of teenagers who welcome the audience and gather in our memories of being 16. (You can email your own backstage before the show begins, or have them collected in picnic cool boxes during this prologue.) They then invite us to ‘forget any of this happened’ and enter the world of the play. If that sounds suspiciously like an opener to one of Shakespeare’s comedies, you’d be right. The subsequent transformation of the ‘Holiday Heaven’ sign into a full moon isn’t the play’s only nod to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Enter two arguing sisters. Neither of them dressed for this oh-so-tired destination they came to as teenagers. It may be brightly lit but Colin Grenfell’s lighting design is surely inspired by remembered hot summers of yesteryear than wet Scottish vacations of today.

Amy is first to arrive – bottle in hand, fag at the ready, looking hungover. Then Emma, who appears to have missed a turning on the way to the Riviera – a corporate lawyer escaping for a week to write her vaguely-plotted first novel and certainly not anticipating the company of her needy elder sister. They both have husbands who we only hear about. Emma’s is a good Christian asset stripper. She has bought into the whole ‘adding value’ thing, but not the church thing (though she likes the flowers). Amy has run away from her own good man after being discovered with the plumber in the children’s bunk bed (because there’s a code in their house that you never commit adultery in the marital one).

Shauna Macdonald as Amy and Jess Hardwick as Emma are good foils for one another but it’s Amy who is the sparkier character, and Macdonald delivers an edgy, extroverted performance that draws focus in a way that leaves the relationship out of kilter. This isn’t the fault of either actress, who express both their defiant exteriors and patent fragility with a knowingness that is often moving. But jokes and speeches alike are weighted towards Amy. Her commentary on the often-clichéd events of their teenage lives and the trajectory of their current ones has a hint of stand-up about it. Indeed, in her Act 2 riff on orange juice, there’s rather more than just a hint. Even the appearance of hipster Lance (Erik Olsson), the DJ of the girls’ youth who has somehow never moved on, does little to lift the sisters out of their increasingly heavy mood of nostalgia and regret.

Disappointingly, Two Sisters remains so wedded to reflection about the past that it never moves very far in the present. Like Emma’s elusive novel, the play is all about the feelings; it never nails the action – or exhibits much desire to do so.

This is a problem for that chorus of teenagers. As occasional proclaimers of the audience’s pre-show memories, they will grow in confidence as the run goes on, but for the most part they are made to loiter around the caravan site, serving as little more than additional props (or prop movers). When individuals do get a chance to break free with their own dialogue or a bit of action, the stage starts to come alive, but for too much of the time they hang around and watch. It’s all a bit awkward. Even during the crucial Act 2 disco, the mute button is pressed, both metaphorically and actually. It’s as if Shakespeare had decided to rob his fairies and rude mechanicals of all their jokes and mischief. That was never going to be a good idea and here it does the youngsters a disservice.

When Lance finally does make his move, a moment of hilarious confusion, it’s too little too late. There’s a kind of resolution that offers some melancholy satisfaction but does Two Sisters send the audience away with what Greig hopes will be ‘a sense of empathy’? A string of witty observations will evoke moments of wry recognition for audience members of a certain age. But empathy? Amy and Emma may achieve it for themselves, but this production is too underpowered to evoke the kind of sharp emotional response that real empathy demands.

The mute button has been pressed, both metaphorically and actually – ★★★ 3 stars

Two Sisters tickets

Two Sisters runs at the Royal Lyceum Theatre until 2 March 2024

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